Movie after movie, Andrew Haigh is becoming a director of the most interesting kind: the kind where you cannot say what his next movie will turn out to be. Haigh first emerged in the niche of gay cinema, with such works as the subtle melodrama Weekend. Then with 45 Years he turned his focus to a man and a woman in their eighties struggling to keep their marriage alive. Now, Lean on Pete sees him leave the towns of England for the vast open spaces of America, in an adaptation of a novel by Willy Vlautin. His teenage hero, Charley, is fifteen and lives with his semi-loser but caring father (not far from the lyric “my father was a drunk but gentle man” in LCD Soundsystem’s recent song “Call the Police”). Initially things seem to be looking up for Charley, as his father starts dating a kind woman, while he himself finds a new passion in tending to the race horses of a local trainer – Lean on Pete is the name of Charley’s favorite horse.
But everything crumbles for Charley very quickly – and without any solace coming on the horizon. The people and animals he cares for are violently taken away from him, one after the other; while at the same time the ideals he believes in are trampled on by the adults surrounding him – an attitude providing the basis for a great supporting performance by the pair formed by Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny, as grown-ups simultaneously kind at heart and coldly cynical. Charley cannot stand the cynical side of their personality, since his ideals matter so much to him, as these things do at his age. Hence, whenever faced with a foretaste of the bleakness and hostility of the adult world, Charley turns the other way and flees – not from cowardice but from a determination to hold on to his principles. The movie unequivocally embraces this adolescent point of view on the world: it is never condescending towards Charley, nor does it second-guess the choices he makes.
As it follows Charley along his dangerous path, Lean on Pete unfolds cleverness in all its parts: the writing, the directing, the acting. Each and every supporting role is spot-on, but the major allocation of praise must go to young Charlie Plummer, outstanding as the main character who has to support the movie on his shoulders. Around him, Andrew Haigh crafts a story of great beauty and human understanding, through its visual form as well as its narrative ampleness. After 45 Years, Haigh proves once again how good he is at mixing genuine feelings (when two people truly connect, through friendship or love) and harsh cruelty (when life refuses to turn out the way we would want it to). That way, he proves himself wise enough to know that Charley’s uncompromising behavior can turn such a run for your life into a descent into hell, if by lack of chance, as happens to be the case for him, you are suddenly deprived of any kind of steady framework allowing you to bloom.